Wrapping Lizzy in his arms, Darcy quietly held her against him, hesitant to speak in case the dream was shattered. After some moments, a small voice peeped out from within his folded arms:

"I fear we shall never make it to the church, my love, if you do not allow me to breathe."

Easing his grip, Darcy looked down at the vision he was cradling, as he struggled to put voice to his emotions. "Please, my darling Lizzy, say it again, for truly I have long thought this day would never come."

Smiling to herself at the intimacy of his address, she gazed into his eyes, reading in them a vulnerability that he would only ever allow her to see.

"Yes, my dearest Fitzwilliam, I will marry you."

Overcome, he crushed Lizzy to him once again. "You have no idea how happy you have made me, my darling Lizzy. I love you …"

He lifted her chin slowly and kissed her with exquisite tenderness, his lips barely touching hers. "Please call me Will," he whispered against her mouth. "It is what you call me in my dreams, my love, and I ache to hear you say it."

"Will," she breathed into his ear, sending shivers through his body. He tensed - the feel of Lizzy so close was intoxicating.

My Lizzy … my Lizzy, he thought in amazement. She will finally be mine.

His tongue whisped gently across Lizzy's lips; moaning softly, she leaned into him, aching for more. It was almost too much for William - he felt the restraints on his resolve begin to fray. He must be the one to pull away. Reluctantly he eased his hold on her and slowly, unwillingly, they drew apart.

Still holding Lizzy, but now in the loose circle of his arms, he made a request: "Would you give me leave to speak with your father? I cannot wait a moment longer," he urged, gifting her with a winning smile.

"It would please me greatly, Will. And it would be best if I go and speak with Mama. I am sure she will be confused as to Lady Catherine's departure.

At the mention of that harridan's name, Darcy scowled for a moment, but resolved to put it out of his mind. He would allow nothing to overshadow the exquisite happiness he was feeling on this day. Discreetly holding hands, they began to walk back to the house.

Darcy knocked at the door of the library, and a voice from within bade him enter.

"Why, Mr Darcy," exclaimed Mr Bennet, "this is a surprise. I was not aware that you had come to visit. Did you accompany Mr Bingley?"

"Er, no, Mr Bennet. Mr Bingley will no doubt arrive within the hour. I left Netherfield ahead of him. I … er … have come to speak with you myself, Sir, on a matter of some importance."

"Well, well, two gentlemen within the same week. I must say that I am delighted to have had the pleasure of so much male conversation of late," he said dryly. "As you can imagine, with a house full of females, I don't often have the opportunity. So, what was it that you particularly wished to discuss, Mr Darcy? I await your leave, sir."

"It concerns your daughter, Mr Bennet."

"My daughter, hmmm? I'm afraid you will need to be a little more explicit, Mr Darcy. I am sure you can appreciate my need for clarification," he hinted, smiling.

Damn! thought Darcy. The heat in this room is stifling. He hooked his finger around the neck of his cravat, attempting to loosen it slightly.

"I would like to marry your daughter, Mr Bennet."

"Really, Mr Darcy? Well, well. This is most hopeful. I still have four who are unpromised - did you have a particular one in mind, or would you like me to choose for you?" asked Mr Bennet, endeavoring to stifle a chuckle at the younger man's uneasiness.

Not ignorant to the fact that Elizabeth's father was teasing with him, he came straight to the point, perhaps a little sooner that he otherwise might. "You may not be aware, Mr Bennet, but I have been endeavoring for some time to garner the affections of your daughter, Elizabeth."

"You are correct, Mr Darcy," he said with wicked amusement. "I was not aware. But then the last I heard she was not handsome enough to tempt you. I take it you have had a change of heart, then?"

Darcy colored. "Er, yes. My apologies for that remark, sir. I am afraid I am not comfortable in society, and have spent the last many years avoiding maneuvers by ambitious mothers attempting to match me up with their 'desirable' daughters. I made that thoughtless remark before I had the opportunity to become properly acquainted with your daughter. I can assure you that I have had occasion to earnestly regret that comment; I have come to feel for Lizzy …, I beg your pardon, Miss Elizabeth, the most ardent of affections and I have asked her to be my wife."

"Well, well, that is quite a change of heart, Mr Darcy. Ardent affections, aye? Well, I'm not sure that is quite enough. Still, Lizzy has obviously consented. Hmmm, I am surprised Lizzy told me nothing of this, but then, she is a very independent young woman, as I am certain you have come to realize. I am acquainted with my Lizzy's thoughts on marriage, Sir, so you won't mind I am sure, if I ask Lizzy to join us in this conversation?"

"By all means, Mr Bennet."

"Just one more thing …"

Darcy waited patiently.

"Do you love my daughter, Mr Darcy - to distraction?"

Darcy smiled. "I believe that is a very accurate description, Mr Bennet. I have been able to think of little else since she first captivated me."

"Good, good. Ardency is not enough, you know - fades with the flush of youth and the onset of children. And does she love you, Sir?"

"I believe she feels … that she has strong … She has led me to believe …"

"So she hasn't told you as such yet, hmmm? Well, we shall see …" Mr Bennet then excused himself to call Lizzy, who was more than happy to escape the verbal barrage she was suffering at the hands of her mother.

In the library, Lizzy looked quizzically at Mr Darcy, but he just smiled cryptically at her in response.

"I have had a rather curious request from Mr Darcy, Lizzy. It would appear that I am to lose not one daughter, but two. You have apparently been conducting a clandestine courtship under our very noses. So, what do you have to say for yourself, young lady?"

"Mr Darcy has asked me to marry him, Papa, and I have accepted."

"So it would seem, my dear, for I hardly think he would have come to me without some sort of tacit approval on your behalf. I need to know though, that you are consenting to marry Mr Darcy for the right reasons. And be truthful with me Lizzy, for I shall know if you are not."

Unable to conceal her feelings, happiness suffused her expression. "He is truly the best man I have ever known, Papa." She turned to Darcy, capturing him with her gaze. "And I have come to love him … very deeply."

Darcy stood rooted to the spot. Whilst he had been thrilled beyond measure to have captured her hand, that he had also captured her heart was a heavenly joy he had not dared contemplate. Feeling her love wash over him, he looked at her with an intensity of emotion that spoke volumes of his attachment.

Mr Bennet - like his favorite daughter, a keen observer of human nature - gazed with affection and not a little regret at the couple in front of him. A blind man could see the depth of emotion between the two. It would appear another man would be his Lizzy's favored companion from this day on.

He coughed discreetly to break the moment, bringing Lizzy and Darcy back to the subject at hand.

"Very well, Lizzy, you have convinced me, my dear. You have my consent, Mr Darcy, as well as the answer to my other question," smiled Mr Bennet, shaking his future son-in-law's hand. "My Lizzy is a bright and intelligent young lady, spirited and independent, quite unlike others of her gender - you would do well to remember that. Now Lizzy … when would you like us to announce this engagement to your mother? I fear she may go distracted at the thought of not one, but two weddings," he said with a smile on his face.

"Papa, with Mr Darcy's permission I would like to wait until Jane and Mr Bingley's announcement has been made. I would not wish to detract from the happiness of their occasion."

Darcy nodded. Elizabeth would be his wife. It was more than he had dared hope for these past desperate months.

Mr Bennet turned at the sound of Bingley arriving and thought the moment propitious to join the others. They left the library in time to meet Bingley in the foyer. Mrs Bennet, who knew nothing still of Mr Darcy's earlier arrival, was left to presume he had arrived with Mr Bingley.

Later that night at Netherfield, the house was quiet as everyone else had retired to bed. Darcy and Bingley were having a companionable glass of port in the library prior to turning in.

"I must admit, Darcy, I was a little surprised to find you at Longbourn ahead of me today - and I confess I am a little curious as to why. You had business with Mr Bennet perhaps?

"Bingley, I have something of great import I wish to tell you, but I must insist that it go no further than this room at this time."

"Good god, Darcy! What is it, man? Has something happened?"

"No, no, Bingley. It is nothing bad, I assure you. Quite the contrary." A smile creased his features. "I have just this day become engaged to Miss Elizabeth Bennet, and I am so delighted I wish to share it with you."

"Why, Darcy! You sly devil, I had no idea. You really do play your cards awfully close to your chest, don't you? Naturally, I congratulate you," he said as he pumped Darcy's hand, smiling widely. "I am sure you will be as happy with Elizabeth as I with my beautiful Jane. But if you don't mind me asking, why do you wish to keep this a secret? There isn't something else I should know is there? You must have a good reason for wanting to keep it quiet."

"Don't jump to conclusions, Bingley. Elizabeth requested that we keep the engagement private for now so as not to detract from the occasion of your engagement to Jane, and I agreed. In fact no one knows except you and Mr Bennet. I must insist you keep it that way for now, if you will."

"Certainly, Darcy. You have my word on it. But once again, my heartiest congratulations," he said smiling.

Darcy's eyes crinkled in amusement as he said, "Then I have your blessing, Bingley?"

"Do you need it?" Bingley laughed. "I am holding a ball at Netherfield on Saturday to announce mine and Jane's engagement, so you shan't have to wait too long at least."

Keenly anticipating their happy futures, the gentlemen finished their ports and retired to their rooms for the night. For the first time in many months, Darcy slept soundly, no longer haunted by dreams of the unattainable.

Caroline Bingley, concerned over Darcy's frequent excursions to Longbourn with her brother, suspected that his attendance on that family may have been due to the enticement of a certain pair of 'fine eyes' … Ever alert to the threat of competition for Mr Darcy's affections, she determined to escalate her long and calculated campaign to become the Mistress of Pemberley.

In her effort to lure Mr Darcy into an appropriate disposition to propose, Caroline Bingley had thus far used almost every tactic a lady could employ to entice him: intelligent conversation (showing the benefits of a well-rounded education); a display of good breeding and manners (as would be required of the Mistress of Pemberley); a constant solicitousness regarding his person (to indicate a kind and caring nature); and an affinity with all his opinions (to indicate a compliance with his thoughts). And whilst he always treated her politely and with respect, she was beginning to suspect that it was due more to her being Charles' sister, than for any other reason. Trouble was brewing on the horizon - of that she was sure. And that was trouble with a capital 'E'! That a country upstart, with few of the qualities that she herself possessed, should usurp her, was insupportable! It was time now to fight fire with fire. Miss Eliza Bennet would not waltz in and snatch the prize she had labored so long to win! She went to find her maid; there were preparations to be made and no time to lose.

Caroline waited patiently throughout dinner and an obligatory evening at cards for the right time to put her scheming into motion. Eventually, most of the family retired to bed. Caroline lingered in the drawing room, knowing Mr Darcy to be having a quiet nightcap in the library. She sent the footman, Johnson, to ask Mr Darcy if he would be so kind as to attend her. Darcy groaned inwardly upon receiving the request, but being unable to invent a reasonable reason not to comply, strode off to the drawing room, annoyed and not a little suspicious as to what Caroline may be up to. Her frequent jibes about Elizabeth lately had been enough to set his teeth on edge.

"Please be seated, Mr Darcy," smiled Caroline, leading him to the nearest settee. She commenced pacing leisurely in front of him. "I have a matter of some importance to discuss which directly involves you."

Wondering what on earth Caroline could possibly have to say that could remotely be of any importance or interest to him, he gritted his teeth saying, "As you will, Miss Bingley," grudgingly giving her leave to continue.

"I am excessively concerned about dear Georgiana," she pronounced as she continued her pacing in front of Darcy.

"How so?" He had received a post from his sister only yesterday, and she had seemed to be in good health and fine spirits at Pemberley.

"It is high time she was presented to society, Mr Darcy. Have you not thought on this?"

With his betrothal to Elizabeth now confirmed, Darcy had thought on this indeed. Elizabeth, with her lively manner and ease in social situations, would be the perfect person to help Georgiana overcome her natural reticence in public. Still unsure where this line of questioning was heading, he waited not so patiently for Caroline to continue, twisting the ring on his little finger in a mild display of exasperation. He was therefore completely confounded by Caroline's next statement.

"You know how fond I am of dear, sweet Georgiana, and I would be more than happy to assume the duties of her chaperone myself in this regard. Mrs Annesley is a suitable companion, I suppose, but she has none of the qualities required to prepare Georgiana for her entrée into society."

"Such as you 'possess'."

"Exactly," smiled Caroline.

Darcy by this time, was starting to feel a little claustrophobic for Caroline's pacing was now being conducted a mere foot in front of him, leaving him little room for escape.

Endeavoring to be diplomatic, Darcy restrained himself from his initial response that he would prefer Caroline and her 'qualities' to stay as far away from his sister as possible - lest she scare every last eligible young man away from his sister as she had done for herself. Her lack of success in her own case spoke volumes to Darcy about how ill-equipped she was for the job.

Attempting to contain a grimace, he said, "I appreciate the kind offer, and I agree she will need the guidance of someone with more experience in these matters than her companion. I can assure you, however, that Georgiana is not yet ready to come out."

Misinterpreting his grimace for a smile, Caroline smiled inwardly, mistakenly feeling she had achieved a small victory. "I am so happy that we are of like minds in this, Mr Darcy. We share a compatibility of thoughts on this, as on many other things."

Good grief - she couldn't be further from the truth! Rising to his feet in front of her, Darcy made to move around her, saying, "If that is all, Miss Bingley?"

At that moment Caroline 'appeared' to trip slightly on the rug and 'fell' into Mr Darcy's arms, the momentum driving them both back onto the settee in a melee of arms and legs.

"Oh! Mr Darcy!" With the element of surprise on her side, Caroline managed to securely trap Darcy on the settee. A minor struggle ensued, from which Darcy was unable, by the sheer weight of Caroline's presence, to escape. Caroline smiled silkily to herself. Things were going very well indeed. "Why, I had no idea you felt this way…" she gushed, wrapping her arms even more firmly around Mr Darcy and planting a kiss on his mouth. "Oh, my dearest Fitzwilliam!" she cried, before once again trapping his face as securely as she had the rest of his body.

Wrenching his face free and resisting the overwhelming urge to wipe his mouth with the back of his hand, he exclaimed, "Miss Bingley!" Darcy was beginning to feel ill and looked up at Caroline in shock, wondering if she had lost what little was left of her mind.

Charles, who curiously had been fetched by Caroline's maid, chose that particular moment to enter the room. Upon seeing Darcy and Caroline stretched out in such a compromising position on the settee, he was temporarily at a loss for words.

"Darcy!"…. "Caroline! What the …?"

"Oh, Charles," gushed Caroline, noticing her brother, "you will never guess! Mr Darcy has quite literally swept me off my feet! I have suspected for some time that he was developing feelings for me."

Using Caroline's momentary distraction brought on by the entrance of her brother, Darcy was finally able to effect his escape from the dead weight tethering him to the settee and stood abruptly, causing Caroline to slide off his lap and land with a thud on the floor.

"I assure you, Charles, I did no such thing!" he seethed.

"Come now Mr Darcy, or should I say, Fitzwilliam…" cooed Caroline, standing a little unsteadily after her dumping and grasping his arm for effect. "I am afraid we have been discovered," she said, motioning to Charles, "in a most compromising position. Don't be shy now, Sir. I can assure you my answer is yes."

"Your answer? Your answer to what?" spluttered Darcy. He was beginning to feel a sense of unreality about the whole episode.

"You can't mean what I think you're meaning, Caroline?" said Charles in shock.

"Why it is quite proper, Charles. Mr Darcy, by his rather novel way of declaring his intentions, is formally seeking my affections. Naturally a gentleman would not declare himself thus unless he had matrimony in mind. So, yes Mr Darcy, I shall marry you."

"But it was an accident Caroline," growled Darcy "and besides, I am already promised to another."

"Promised? To whom? " After a small moment of panic, realization dawned. "Your cousin, Miss De Bourgh? Oh, Mr Darcy. I know you never had any intention of agreeing to your Aunt's demands in that area. Why I overheard you telling Charles just that only last week. Your cousin, poor frail creature that she is, wouldn't marry you as she could never cope with the demands of running Pemberley, as I am sure she realizes. So, you see you shall be able to marry me after all." And with that, she swept smiling and satisfied from the room.

Darcy and Charles stared after her, both dumbfounded.

Darcy spent a fitful night, sleeping little. Nightmares of Caroline Bingley in full bridal regalia chasing him through Netherfield screaming, "I do! I do!" woke him in a cold sweat. Ugh! He shivered in revulsion at the thought.

He had known for some time of Caroline's designs on Pemberley but never had he believed she would employ such desperate measures to achieve her aims. Dreading the prospect of facing her, he bathed and dressed and went downstairs for breakfast. As he approached the parlor he overheard, much to his horror, Caroline enthusiastically relating the situation of their 'betrothal' to her sister, Louisa, and Louisa's husband, Mr Hurst. The ladies tittered excitedly, much to Charles' consternation.

"You are not engaged to Darcy, Caroline. What occurred was an accident. You are presuming too much, and looking quite foolish into the bargain. You must desist with these wild delusions."

"Charles, you saw with your very own eyes what occurred. I admit, I had perceived Mr Darcy's growing feelings for me for some time, but it is understandable that you, as a man, would have been insensible to it."

Charles sighed deeply and shook his head, at a loss as to how to handle a situation that was rapidly escalating out of control. Darcy, unable to deal with Caroline after the disturbing visions that had plagued his sleep, used the advantage of having not been observed to flee the house to walk the grounds, in an attempt to think of some way to deal with Caroline's pronouncement before serious damage could be done.

In deep contemplation of the situation in which he was immersed, he wandered aimlessly until he became aware his feet were leading him along the road to Longbourn. He stepped up his pace. He must speak to Lizzy and inform her of what had transpired before she found out from someone else.

He was fortunate to encounter Mr Bennet upon his arrival at Longbourn.

"Hello, Mr Darcy," called Mr Bennet. "I take it you have come to visit Lizzy - I would not be so naïve as to think that you would walk all the way from Netherfield for more of my stimulating company."

"Good morning, Mr Bennet," said Darcy to the man he hoped would still become his father-in-law. "Yes, I was hoping for a few moments with Elizabeth. Is she at home?"

"I'm afraid I must disappoint you, Sir, for she has gone to Meryton with her sister Jane. I believe they will be calling at Netherfield on their way home, at Mr Bingley's invitation."

"I had best return quickly as I would not wish to miss them. Good day, Sir," said Darcy, quickly preparing to take his leave.

"Have no fear, Mr Darcy." Mr Bennet called to the retreating figure. "They are shopping. You would likely be able to ride to London and back and still arrive before them," he laughed.

Darcy arrived back at Netherfield some time later, hot and dusty from his brisk walk, and rushed to the library to find Charles.

"Have they arrived yet, Bingley?"

"I take it you are referring to the two elder Bennet sisters, Darce?"


"No, they have not arrived yet. Where have you been? You look like you've been dragged through a hedge backwards?"

"Not literally perhaps," said Darcy, "but I must admit to feeling like I have been hit by a runaway carriage. I suppose it would be too much to hope that your sister, Caroline, is not at home?"

"I'm afraid so. She has been asking for you …"

Darcy ran his fingers through his hair. "Damn! I must find some way to speak to Elizabeth before Caroline sees her." He paused a moment in indecision. "But I can't greet Elizabeth looking like this. I will be back directly, Bingley. If Elizabeth should arrive whilst I am upstairs, please try and keep Caroline away from her …"

Darcy bounded up the stairs to his room and with great haste, washed and changed. He located Bingley just in time to hear a carriage pull up at the front of Netherfield. Knowing who their guests would be, the gentlemen - one full of joy, the other full of trepidation - walked outside to greet the ladies.

Bingley, beaming as ever, greeted Jane with a kiss on the hand, and assisted her to alight. As they moved off, Darcy moved forward to assist Elizabeth.

"Good morning, my love," she said quietly, smiling into the eyes of the man she loved so well as he took her hand.

"Good morning, my heart," he whispered in reply. "Lizzy, I must speak with you before we go in - would you permit me the pleasure of your company for a brief walk in the garden?"

"Certainly, Will. Is there something the matter? You do not look at all yourself."

"I will tell you directly …"

They had hardly taken half a dozen steps in the direction of the garden, before what was left of Darcy's good humor clouded over.

"Miss Eliza! How wonderful to see you again."

Darcy groaned audibly as Lizzy looked quickly at him in confusion.

"Miss Bingley, how fortunate to find you at home - a visit to Netherfield would be … lacking something … without your charming hospitality," said Lizzy, turning back. Poor Jane, she thought, to have to suffer that harpy as a sister-in-law.

"You must come inside. We really should celebrate, shouldn't we, Mr Darcy …"

Darcy went rigid, leaving Lizzy even more confused as to what was happening. She looked to him questioningly, unsure of the undercurrents flowing around them. Receiving no direction from her intended except a hardening of his jaw, she looked to Bingley, who looked away quickly, too embarrassed to meet her eyes.

Caroline called for tea to be brought to the parlor, and stood in front of them expectantly, waiting as they settled. Lizzy, aware that Darcy would not sit next to her on the settee as their engagement had not yet been announced, watched him walk to the other side of the room and take up his usual position gazing out the window. She knew him well enough by now to know that he assumed that position when he was either uncomfortable in company, or deep in thought. She could tell he was distracted by the way he kept glancing at her and frowning, but was unable to decide which affliction ailed him at this moment, and who or what was the cause of it.

She was about to go to Mr Darcy and discreetly speak with him to attempt to ascertain the source of his discomfort, but Caroline inconveniently chose that moment to speak.

"Wonderful! Now that we are all settled, I wish to extend my congratulations to you, Jane - I may call you that I hope, as we are almost sisters. You have made a most fortunate alliance, and I am convinced you and my brother are very well suited and you shall be most happy, I am sure. Welcome to our family."

Jane, taken aback by Miss Bingley's tactless comment, was no longer naïve enough to think that Caroline honestly welcomed the match between herself and her brother, but thanked her nonetheless for the welcome, aware that this was simply a formality which, for the sake of good manners, needed to be said.

"Good, if that is all, Miss Bingley," cut in Darcy quickly, "I promised to show Miss Elizabeth the garden and …"

"Oh, Mr Darcy, you do take delight in teasing me," said Caroline smiling.

"Surely, you would not let Miss Eliza go without informing her of the other announcement?"

Lizzy could feel the strain that had filled the air, and watched Darcy go pale at Caroline's words. Confused now beyond belief, she wished that someone would just tell her what on earth was going on! Caroline looked decidedly smug, Darcy looked ill, and Bingley looked away at his feet.

"Oh come now, Mr Darcy - we are amongst friends." Seeing his reticence and unable to control herself, she jumped in. "Jane, Miss Eliza," Caroline commenced, "Mr Darcy and I are engaged to be married!" Caroline looked smugly to Elizabeth, and was very happy to see a look of surprise cross her face.

Lizzy sat in stunned disbelief, and looked to Darcy, eyebrow raised. "Why, Mr Darcy, I had no idea that you and Miss Bingley were so … close."

Darcy looked back at Elizabeth, his eyes pleading with her for understanding. Not sure what the look meant, but a bit taken aback by Caroline's announcement, she remembered her manners and offered her 'congratulations' to the happy couple, although one member of that party looked decidedly unhappy. In fact, from the set of his jaw and the rigidity of his stance, he looked furious.

"What wonderful news, Miss Bingley. Mr Darcy has certainly been a busy man." Caroline was about to ask what she meant, but was forestalled by Lizzy's next question. "And tell us, when did you and Mr Darcy become affianced? inquired Lizzy.

"Why, just last evening. Mr Darcy's proposal was a little unusual, but then …"

"Last night you say?" asked Lizzy.

"Yes, I did say …"

"Yes, but then, Mr Darcy is a very 'unusual' man … aren't you, Mr Darcy?" she said, looking directly at him. "I have heard from very reliable sources that you are inclined to act a little impulsively, given certain provocation," said Lizzy, her eyes beginning to glint, although whether this was in anger or humor, he was not quite certain at this point. "It would appear your cousin, the Colonel, is not the only man of action bearing the Fitzwilliam name," said Lizzy dryly.

What on earth happened last night? Elizabeth wondered. Obviously something was not quite right here, so she opted to hold her tongue for the time being, aware all the time of Mr Darcy's eyes on her, even when she was not looking at him directly.

"So Miss Eliza, you must visit us at Pemberley after our wedding. Mr Darcy and I will be most happy to receive you after we return from our honeymoon," gloated Caroline.

Elizabeth couldn't resist peeking at Mr Darcy at this latest comment. She caught the quick roll of his eyes, and the distasteful expression that passed across his face. To her credit, she resolved to wait until she had spoken with her fiancé (if indeed he still was) privately.

Before long, it was time for the Misses Bennet to depart. Unable to speak with Elizabeth privately before they left, Darcy barely waited till they had acquired the main road before he requested his horse brought around.

Halfway home, a rider flashed past the carriage, obviously in great haste.

"Lizzy, that looked like Mr Darcy, did you not think so?"

"I believe it was, Jane."

"Where can he be going to in such a hurry do you think …"

"Why Jane, I'm sure I have no idea. He is an exceedingly difficult man to fathom," Lizzy said.

"I must admit I am a little surprised that he and Caroline have become engaged. I was under the impression that the only feelings he felt for her were disdain."

"For myself Jane, I shall only believe it when I see them standing at the altar together."

The remainder of the trip to Longbourn was passed in companionable silence, each sister lost in her own thoughts. Lizzy knew quite well where Mr Darcy had been going at such speed, and just as well, she thought to herself. He has some serious explaining to do.

As expected, Mr Darcy was waiting for them at Longbourn, and requested Lizzy walk with him briefly.

"Perhaps you would like to take a turn around the garden, Mr Darcy, as our previous one at Netherfield was interrupted for so important an announcement as your 'engagement'."

Lizzy looked at Darcy, and was surprised to see him looking back at her wretchedly.

"Do not tease me, Lizzy. Please, you must give me leave to explain."

"Certainly, Mr Darcy. Do not let me stop you. I am most interested to hear how a man who has successfully avoided matrimony all these years can suddenly find himself engaged to not one, but two women within the space of twenty-four hours."

"I tried to tell you earlier, but … we … "

"Yes, I remember. Miss Bingley expressed a desire to celebrate the rash of engagements of late in Hertfordshire."

Darcy risked rejection, and grasped Lizzy's hands in his. Haltingly, his explanation of the events of last evening unfolded. Lizzy was at first incredulous, then angry, and finally amused. To Darcy's surprise, she actually laughed!

"I fail to see the humor in the situation, Elizabeth. The woman is clearly deranged! What, pray tell, do you find so amusing?"

"I have been aware of Caroline Bingley's designs on you from almost the first moment of our acquaintance, Will. I am a little amazed that she has felt the need to take such desperate steps, but not surprised really. Anyone who knows you well though, would find it a little hard to put credence to her claims. You are not the type of man who goes around throwing women on settees and ravishing them. Although, I must admit, I would not be averse to that myself," she laughed, eyes twinkling.

"Really, madam. I am glad you find this situation so amusing. Perhaps I should show you just what I am capable of?" he enquired with an arched eyebrow.

"You will recall I have experienced quite a few of your 'capabilities' myself, Mr Darcy - perhaps our betrothal would have not been quite so long in coming if I had taken similar liberties myself?" said Lizzy teasingly.

"You may take all the liberties with me you wish, Lizzy," he said huskily. "If we were fully alone, I would not be above taking a few myself. But then," he said, looking around and dragging her in the direction of a particularly dense hedge, "we do appear to be all alone, do we not?" Darcy moved quickly to embrace Lizzy, but she squealed and quickly ducked out of his reach.

"Oh no, Mr Darcy, you shall not have your way with me so easily. I believe I am engaged to be married."

"Yes, to me, Elizabeth, and no other," he said firmly as he caught his elusive fiancée and took her into his arms.

Breathless and laughing, they felt tension of the afternoon fade. The sight of Darcy, smiling widely, took Lizzy's breath away. Impulsively she grabbed his face between her hands and kissed him soundly. Using his momentary surprise, she extracted herself and skipped away, her laughter trailing behind her in the breeze. A playful growl was all the warning she had before she felt herself grabbed from behind and trapped in his arms.

"You had better run a lot faster than that my love, if you expect to get away with that again," he chuckled into her ear.

"Perhaps I did not wish to get away," she said, and twisting in his grip, was caught by the salacious expression in his dark eyes. Rapidly, the mood changed from teasing to provocative, and Will pulled Lizzy hard against him, growling deep in his throat.

"Do not tease me so, my love. There may be no settee available, but I can assure you I have a most inventive mind," he reassured her, eyebrow raised rakishly.

"Why Will … tease you? I would never do such a thing." And smiling, she reached up to kiss him, his hold growing instantly firmer, blocking any chance of her escape.

Under Lizzy's lighthearted banter, Darcy's good humor returned full force. They determined to confront Miss Bingley after the ball - to do so prior would mean announcing their engagement, and their wishes regarding Jane and Bingley held. And after discussing how best to deal with her ridiculous claims, Darcy returned to Netherfield, a much happier man than he had been all day.

Back at Netherfield, Bingley, who was becoming increasingly embarrassed by Caroline's attempts to convince everyone that she and Darcy had come to an 'arrangement', felt it was time to confront his sister and attempt to make her see reason. To this end, he called her into his study and nervously asked her to sit. He paced tensely, hesitant to broach the subject that he knew would raise his determined and obstinate sister's ire.

"Caroline, I must insist that you listen to me! Your attempts to entrap Darcy into marriage will not work! And it is exceedingly unbecoming watching you flounce around the house putting yourself in his way at every opportunity. And that announcement today … you and Mr Darcy are not engaged! He has not declared himself - it was merely a ruse on your part to ambush him into an arrangement. He doesn't love you Caroline, can't you see that?"

"Oh, Charles, do not worry so. I know that Mr Darcy does not love me, but love is not necessary in marriage. A fondness and a mutual regard will suffice. I know he was temporarily infatuated with Miss Eliza Bennet," she spat, "but he will come to realize that I will make the ideal mistress for Pemberley. I am merely helping him along. All will be well, you shall see."

"But Caroline, he is already affianced. He has tried to tell you that."

"To Miss De Bourgh? Oh Charles - that is of no consideration," she dismissed. "He has never made any secret of the fact that he has no intention of marrying her."

"And he has no intention of marrying you either, Caroline. You don't understand …."

"No Charles, it is you who doesn't understand! I simply will not stand for any more of this conversation. Mr Darcy and I shall be married, and I shall be Mistress of Pemberley. Enough! I will hear no more on it."

Caroline flounced from the room in a huff. Charles really is becoming most tiresome - but everything is going according to plan. It won't be long now. And smiling to herself, Caroline went off in search of the housekeeper to see how preparations were coming along for the ball.

It was Saturday evening and the ball was in full swing. As the company was mostly seated and availing themselves of refreshments, Bingley decided the time was right for his announcement. Standing with Jane at his side and beaming with pride, he attempted to garner the attention of those present. He cleared his throat, endeavoring to be heard above the noise of those dining and talking. "Excuse me, everyone. May I have your attention please?"

The noise and chatter in the room gradually quieted and they all looked at Bingley and Jane expectantly. Those who knew the announcement to come smiled to themselves.

"If I may have your attention for just a moment please, I have something of great delight I wish to share with you tonight. As most of you are aware, I have been courting Miss Jane Bennet for some months now, and much to my great joy, she has consented to become my wife. I would like you all to drink to my future happiness with my beautiful Jane."

As everyone raised their glasses and toasted the happy couple, Jane, slightly embarrassed by the attention, looked up at Bingley with a look of quiet adoration. Lizzy watched her elder sister, beaming with happiness next to her Mr Bingley, and thought of her own happy situation. She caught Mr Darcy's eye, and a look of silent understanding passed between them. Their day would soon come.

Caroline watched her brother and his betrothed with a small show of distaste. All that gushy affection - gah! she thought. However, what a perfect opportunity they have presented … She decided to take advantage of everyone's attention to make an announcement of her own -

"Please friends, just one more moment if you please. I can see how happy you all are on the betrothal of my brother and his lovely bride-to-be, so you will be thrilled I'm sure, at the second announcement we have to make."

Guests looked at each other in confusion, but Darcy, standing just to the side of Bingley, looked quickly at Caroline and went pale. No! She wouldn't! he thought. Seething inside, he unobtrusively made his way close to where Caroline was standing.

Caroline looked over at where Lizzy was standing next to Jane and her brother and smiled smugly. Completely oblivious to Darcy's progress in her direction, she continued,

"It would appear that this is a night for announcements, and this one too, is very close to home." She quietly chuckled to herself. "I know you will all be as overjoyed as I am to know that Mr Darcy …."

She stopped suddenly as she felt someone's hand on her shoulder and turned slightly to see Mr Darcy right behind her. He smiled down at her, and putting his finger to his lips said, "If you will allow me, Caroline?"

Excited at his use of her name in such company, and thrilled beyond words that he was now ready to make the announcement she had been itching to make herself, she smiled at him playfully and gave him leave to continue.

Yes! she thought to herself. Now, Miss Eliza Bennet, you shall see that a fine pair of eyes is not enough to tempt a man of Mr Darcy's discernment.

Beneath his smiling visage, Darcy was furious! How dare she! Stupid woman! That she would think she could entrap me in this fashion! Well, Caroline, I shall certainly give them an announcement!He glanced across at Lizzy, catching her eye and winking discreetly. As Lizzy caught on, she discreetly nodded her head in silent consent.

"My friends, I realize that many of you have come here tonight hoping, or expecting, to hear an engagement announcement. I offer my heartiest congratulations to my friend, Mr Bingley and Miss Jane Bennet. I sincerely wish them every happiness and joy in their years together. There is, however, another engagement that I was reluctant to mention so as not to detract from the occasion of Mr Bingley and Miss Bennet's engagement. It would seem though, that Miss Bingley, understandably excited by the news, has decided to pre-empt the official announcement by informing you here tonight of another joyous event which has been set.

Caroline, doing a most amazing impression of the cat that has just swallowed the canary, glanced over at Elizabeth and smiled smugly.

Darcy continued. "I have long considered Mr Bingley as the brother I never had, and it would appear that he is finally to become my brother in reality. It is my great honor and pleasure to announce that Miss Elizabeth Bennet has consented to be my wife - we will be married at the end of autumn, and that will not be a moment too soon," he said, smiling across at Lizzy.

The sound of nervous laughs and gasps went up around the room, most notably from Mrs Bennet, who was forcibly restrained by her husband from further, more vocal exclamations.

Caroline, forgotten in the excited buzz surrounding the announcement, was still smiling stupidly when she finally comprehended what Darcy had said and immediately felt dizzy and decidedly ill. Miss Elizabeth Bennet? But he … I … she …? Charles words came back to her, "But Caroline, he is already affianced …" and as comprehension finally dawned, she fainted and began a most graceful, unhindered slide to the floor, where she lay in a crumpled heap. "Oh dear," said Bingley, standing over the undignified pile of taffeta and feathers his sister had become on the floor. "It would appear that the excitement has been too much for my sister after all. Could someone please assist me to remove her to the library where she may recover in private?"

Under Bingley's instruction, Caroline was gently carried from the room and placed on a settee in the library. Quietly, with a silent chuckle to himself, he closed the door and returned to the ball, leaving Caroline alone to recover at her leisure.

Chapter Four